Martin van Buren of Pure Dutch Stock

Martin van Buren, 8th President of the United States

by Milton E. Van Slyck

From de Halve Maen, April, 1952 Vol.XXVII no.1


Martin Van Buren was the first President to take to the White House the ideals and virtues of the early settlers of New Netherland and the first to be purely of the blood of those early settlers. Born December 5, 1782, Martin was one of five children of Abraham Van Buren and the widow of Johannes J. Van Allen. In maidenhood this lady was Maria Hoes (or Hoesen), daughter of Johannes Kirkse Hoes and Jannetje Lawrense Van Schaick, both of whose progenitors were early Dutch settlers. The President’s father, Abraham, also was descended of early Dutch settlers whose family line in America dated to 1631.

The original settler of the Van Buren family did not bear the name Van Buren. It was not the custom then to have a family name except in rare cases where positions of prominence or some act of more than local importance (favorable or unfavorable) supplied a name symbolical enough to be carried down to posterity. Cornelius Maessen, the first immigrant of the Van Buren line, is believed to have come from Buren, a village in the Province of Gelderland, Holland. It was late in the 17th century that the name Van Buren appeared in family records.

Van Buren was a master in the art of national campaign managing—breaking ground in a then new field and setting a model for decorum and success that present-day campaign managers might well follow. Daniel Webster is on record as believing that Van Buren did more for the election of “Old Hickory” than any other ten men, a view shared by many of his contemporaries. Van Buren’s carefully planned words and moves paid off in the political arena and a gentle suggestion from the urbane Van Buren often became a line of strategy of greatest importance.

To a publicist, who was writing campaign material for Jackson, Van Buren wrote: “Does the old gentlemen have prayers in his house? If so, mention it modestly.” And thus “Old Hickory”—who was known sometimes to make the varnish curl from conference tables—became known as a pious man. It was during the fierce Jackson campaign that Van Buren took the party nomination for Governor of New York, won the election and, in order to take his seat at the head of New York, resigned as U. S. Senator only to leave the governor’s office within sixty days to join the cabinet of Andrew Jackson as Secretary of State. As able biographers have pointed out, Van Buren set a record, for—within twelve weeks—he held three of the highest prizes of public life and, at the same time, was heir-apparent to the Presidency, itself.

Such precocity was nothing new in the life’s history of a man who, even as a fuzz-cheeked boy in his native Kinderhook, had advanced so fast that his lack of years was a deterrent to his career. As a boy he was exceptionally bright and, at the age of fourteen, he finished school farther advanced than boys several years older. Immediately he went into the study of law and three years later, at the age of seventeen, was sent to the Congressional Convention of his district. In fact, Van Buren more than once was forced to mark time in political work pending coming of age. At the age of twenty-five he was appointed a county surrogate. He was elected to the State Senate at 30, appointed Attorney General at thirty-two and at thirty-eight was head of the “Albany Regency” and a U. S. Senator. The Albany Regency was formed and conducted with such consummate skill that for the next sixty years it dominated the Democratic machine of New York.

Back of the fanciful legends which grew up around Van Buren was the almost incredulous awe with which observers witnessed this quiet and smilingly pleasant little man accomplish feats which even the great, thundering orators of his day could not approach. His political fortunes ran so smoothly and so well that it was small wonder that the appellation “Little Magician” attached to him, as well as “the Red Fox of Kinderhook” and, in less complimentary vein, the “American Talleyrand”, from French observers. At the time Van Buren entered Jackson’s cabinet, he was only forty-six years old and when he was inaugurated President of the United States, he was only fifty-five—in the early years of life’s prime, a life which was to last for twenty-four more years.

There can be no doubt but that Martin Van Buren would in this day and age be known as a “New” or “Fair Dealer”. He signed into law the revolutionary 10-hour law for government employees. The workday then was twelve to sixteen hours, from sun-up to sundown, and a work-day of only ten hours was an outright heresy. But in addition to being liberal—in the sense that the Dutch have been champions of many of the innovations which have become part of the great American tradition—he differed in the “Fair Dealers” in that he was innately conservative, moving with less splash and derring-do than is common today.

Van Buren’s quiet efficiency was in sharp contrast with the political campaign which unseated him. It took the greatest ballyhoo campaign the nation had yet seen to take the doughty little gentleman from Kinderhook out of the White House. A Virginia aristocrat, William Henry Harrison, was billed as a “hard-cider, log-cabin” man and, with frenzied parading and extravagant spending, General Harrison was carried into office.

Though removed from the White House, Van Buren remained active in the national picture for more than ten years and, for another ten years, lived in retirement at Lindenwald, his country estate at Kinderhook. (For some facts and statements in the foregoing I am indebted to the following sources: A Genealogical Sketch on Martin Van Buren by Frank J. Conkling, and other biographical works, including “Our Presidents” by James Morgan.)

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